Croatia: Road Trip Leg 2 & Rovinj

Thursday, May 21st, 2015
Rovinj from the Adriatic

Rovinj from the Adriatic

On Sunday afternoon, we drove from Plitvice Lakes through the lush and rolling countryside of the Lika-Karlovac and Kvarner regions into the Italian influenced Istrian peninsula to the far western coastal town of Rovinj, Croatia. As the official navigator, I used the National Tourist Board’s fantastic map as my guide to scenic routes and as a result, our drive took nearly 8 hours. But that was a good thing because we saw the most beautiful scenery and had a very peaceful drive. The primary roads throughout the country have been exceptional. Most of them are 2-lane undivided low-speed highways that climb up mountains and descend into river valleys. At the larger cities, they often skirt around the edges to avoid traffic while they zig zag through the smaller towns. The roads are also very sparsely populated. This may be a factor of it being low tourist season, but I suspect not.

Croatia Road Map

Croatia Road Map

Our drive through the Lika-Karlovac region was quiet, misty, and beautiful. Farm houses dotted the lush landscape, but in between were concrete and terra-cotta brick buildings that were abandoned, half complete, or dilapidated. After reading through several Wikipedia articles about Croatia’s Homeland War, I understand that this region was contended shortly after Croatia became an independent nation in 1991, and contains several battle sites between the Croats and Serbs before the war ended in 1995.

This is the first time I have ever been in a country that did not exist when I was born much less an area that was a battlefield during my lifetime. I remember hearing Yugoslavia mentioned in the news, but I never understood what happened, and I honestly had never heard of Croatia until a couple years ago, more than 20 years after the country’s independence.

Understanding this deepens my perception of the people I have met and enhances the beauty I have seen. I appreciate that this area of the world has been prosperous and thriving for hundreds of years longer than my country, but the most recent scars are much fresher. People I am seeing every day lived through conflict that I cannot imagine. Their family members were likely involved in some way, and their neighbors and friends could have been displaced. Their country is a young nation with a rich history, and I’m grateful for the chance to see it as it reinvents itself.

Small town Croatia

Small town Croatia

Abandoned train side building

Abandoned train side building

Medium town Croatia

Medium town Croatia

Nik's in Lokve

Nik’s in Lokve

Omladinsko Jezero  (Young Lake)

Omladinsko Jezero (Young Lake)

The inland area of Istria (which was part of Italy until the 1940’s), is very similar to Tuscany. Subtle hills are topped with small hill-towns and the slopes are covered with vineyards and olive groves. The roads wind through the farmland and my jaw continued to drop at every bend. It also helped that as we drove west, the weather continued to get better and better.

The photos I have and the drive through these regions do not do them justice. There are many roads we did not drive and many villages we did not walk, so they are added to the growing list of places that we need to explore more.

Ruins & Blue Skies

Ruins & Blue Skies

The hill town of Buzet

The hill town of Buzet

Next time, I'll actually visit Montovun

Next time, I’ll actually visit Montovun

As we reached the Adriatic Sea in Umag near the Slovenian border, the strangest thing happened. The beautiful and quaint countryside with lush rolling hills turned into a coastline that felt like a mid-level Southern (as in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, etc.) state park with Caribbean all-inclusive resorts and Italian medieval towns scattered about the seaside of white pebble beaches and the clearest blue sea I have ever seen. Just inland of these, brightly painted Thai style concrete apartment buildings with view balconies were mixed with suburban shopping centers and Texas roadside Bar-b-Que restaurants including open wood fires with whole lambs on the spit. I guess I expected this coast to be more like Santorini or Cinque Terre. Surprisingly, I was glad that it wasn’t. Instead of elite, it was common. It is a place I can imagine my family being comfortable, and it is a place where families from all over Europe (mostly Germany) spend their summers. They reserve a campsite or condo from May 30th until September 1st, and it is their home away from home. I read somewhere that within family groups, the adult couples each take a week or so at camp while the kids stay all summer. Now that would be a great way to hang out with your cousins!

I didn’t really take many photos of this phenomenal coastline, but it was intriguing enough that Nik and I decided to stay at a campground as our next stop!

 

Our first sighting of the Adriatic Sea since Venice

Our first sighting of the Adriatic Sea since Venice

Once we made it to Rovinj, it was the quaint little Italian seaside village we expected. Our apartment was within the pedestrian-only protected old town on a small cobblestone seaside street, and we parked our car and didn’t use it for our entire 3 day stay. From our windows, we could hear the chatter from cafes, and couldn’t quite see the water so we often took the 2 minute walk from our front door to the rocky coast to watch the sunset or the just the sea. We were also within walking distance to Park šuma Zlatni Rt (Forest Park Golden Cape), so we took a 10 mile walk along the seaside path that was dotted with beaches with varying degree of seclusion before picking a rocky spot to sunbath. On our final day there, we took a boat ride that circled a few of the smaller islands near the coast. It was worth the fee just to take photos of the town from the sea, but otherwise the boat ride was fairly uneventful.

For us, the three days we spent on the Istrian coast was plenty, and I can’t imagine spending much more than that unless I was camping with a large group. I can imagine spending a lot more time in inland Istria though.

Sveta Eufemija

Sveta Eufemija

Old streets are the best

Old streets are the best

I've always wanted to see this kind of swimming in person

I’ve always wanted to see this kind of swimming in person

Windows & Succulents

Windows & Succulents

Sunset Smooch

Sunset Smooch

Coming home

Coming home

A full marina

A full marina

Little Boat | Clear Water

Little Boat | Clear Water

Cleaning Crew

Cleaning Crew

The Delphin Vessel

The Delphin Vessel

For more info…
Croatia Tourist Board Brochures including the Road Map
Camping.hr
Favorite Rovinj Restaurant: Tipico
Our AirBnB Croatia Wishlist

Nik’s Blog: Three Days in Rovinj

Plitvice Lakes & Rastoke, Croatia: Water in the sky and on land

Sunday, May 17th, 2015
Where water and sky are the same

Where water and sky are the same

From Zagreb, we rented a car from the airport and began a two week road trip through Croatia. The plan was to take mostly local roads and stay off of the Autoceste (toll Interstates) so that we could see the countryside and smaller villages along the way. We arranged a one-way rental from Zagreb to Split through Avis, which we also used in Italy, and the rental process was flawless. For navigation, we had been given directions from our host in Plitvice Lakes and we used the maps on our phones.

To get out of Zagreb, we broke our Autoceste rule and exited the city on the A1 for time purposes. We stayed on for about an hour before exiting in Karlovac to take the smaller 2-lane local D1 road the rest of the way to Plitvice Lakes. As expected, the countryside was lush and beautiful with small towns dotting the roadway. It was also drizzling and by the time we decided to take a quick break, I happened to look up to see signs for the town of Rastoke. I urged Nik to pull over, and as we got out of the car we couldn’t help but smile as we looked over the ledge to see a quaint village of wooden buildings scattered along a river with water flowing and falling between them into the Korana River. We paid for 1 hour of parking and made our way down the path into town. It was everything you imagine a small town that evolved around water mills of the 17th century to be after it accepting its modern fate as a tourist attraction. Small cafe/restaurants with large exterior wooden decks built to accommodate busloads and rooms to rent to accommodate the road-trippers were dispersed between official admission supported tourist sights. While we were there, only two busloads and a handful of road-trippers were walking through in the rain making it seem somewhat abandoned, but the buildings and grounds were maintained just enough to tell you that it wasn’t.

I knew I would be sad if we passed up the opportunity to sit in one of these waterside restaurants because they reminded me of afternoons we spent at Huay Tung Tao Reservoir in Chiang Mai, Thailand back in 2008. So we moved the car, paid for two more hours of parking, and picked a table under cover with minimal railing along the water’s edge next to a group of German motorcyclists. Then, we enjoyed a lunch of homemade cured meat (bear, boar, dear, & pork) and cheese (sheep & cow), grilled potatoes, local beer, Coke, and coffee served by one of the kindest people we have met so far on the trip.

Rastoke from the parking area

Rastoke from the parking area

Nik eating bear meat for the first time

Nik eating bear meat for the first time

...

Based on the wood storage in this region, I assume that all buildings are heated with wood stoves

Based on the wood storage in this region, I assume that all buildings are heated with wood stoves

Living over water

Living over water

From Rastoke, it was only half an hour more to the cottage for the night. We stopped along the way to pick up groceries and when we arrived we were greeted by Dila, a 2 month old golden retriever puppy and a foggy view of the Korana River Valley. The property and vegetation from the entire drive reminded me of East Tennessee, so that evening I simply sat outside and absorbed the view. The humidity was comforting.

Our home for a few days (taken with phone)

Our home for a few days (taken with phone)

Our next and only full day in Plitvice Lakes area began with breakfast at the cottage and an early start at the National Park. We parked at Entrance 2 and took our time criss-crossing the upper lakes before taking the shuttle back to the parking area around noon (the shuttles around and ferries across the lakes are included in park admission fees). The boardwalks were stunning, the water was crystal clear, rain fell at a steady pace, and the other tourists were few and far between.

We drove to a nearby restaurant for lunch that was mostly filled with a Korean tour group. Afterwards, we went back to the lakes and parked at Entrance 1 to explore the lower lakes. As we descended, the fog was so thick that you hear that waterfalls were close, but you could not see them. It was a little eery, but beautiful because the rain and mist is why the falls exist. Our afternoon path was populated with hundreds and perhaps thousands of fellow visitors decked out in hiking shoes, ponchos and waterproof pants. It was a colorful array that contrasted with the natural beauty, and while it would have been great to see the lakes by ourselves, it was also nice to know that they are being appreciated by so many.

By the time we had seen all the lakes, we were pretty exhausted so we took the ferry back across the big lake. On the walk to the parking lot, the views that had been obscured by fog earlier were now mostly clear and we got a small taste of the vistas that were possible.

The weather for our one day in Plitvice Lakes National Park wasn’t ideal for taking photos because we were both constantly drying off our cameras, but it was a moody experience that I wouldn’t pass up. If I could do it again, I would have planned at least 3 days in the area and I would have come to the park at least twice. I would have done one if not two hikes further afield into the forrest and made sure that we had time for the “money shots” in good weather and in bad. So, if we get the chance, we will be back!

Row boats

Row boats

Wooden pathways

Wooden pathways

Observing nature

Observing nature

Grass

Grass

Small streams everywhere

Small streams everywhere

Hiker

Hiker

More pathways

More pathways

Enjoying the lakes

Enjoying the lakes

Look, I'm standing on a waterfall

Look, I’m standing on a waterfall

From above without the fog

From above without the fog

Nik’s Blog: Got wet, but not upset: Rastoke and Plitvice Lakes National Park

Zagreb, Croatia: Short but Sweet

Thursday, May 14th, 2015
St Mark's Church - I've seen this image 1,000 times, but never knew where it was

St Mark’s Church – I’ve seen this image 1,000 times, but never knew where it was

After 5 days in Budapest, we took the midday train through the countryside of Hungary to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia. We boarded the train as soon as it pulled into the station 20 minutes before departure, and I had to fight (in English) with an older Hungarian woman (speaking only Hungarian) for our second class window seats. Nik and I had specifically requested them because of the 5.5 hour ride, and we did not want to be stuck looking over people to see out the window. I think she misunderstood the seat numbering system, which I understand because it’s bogus. Once the train started moving, I felt bad because I couldn’t apologize so I pulled out my phone and wrote a quick apology and translated it into Hungarian and showed it to her. She smiled and nodded her head, so I guess she understood.

It was a pleasantly warm day outside, and as the train moved through the smaller stations along the outskirts of town, our car continued to fill and became increasingly warm. There were no operable windows, the air conditioning was not working, and almost all of the 80 2nd class seats were taken. We had plenty of water and snacks, but I started to dread being packed in this metal box for hours. After our tickets were checked, I darted towards the front of the train to catch my breath. Luckily, the dining cars were next door, fresh air was already blowing through the 8 open windows, and all of the seats were empty. I went back and told Nik that we had to move, so we grabbed our luggage and made our way passed the other passengers sweating bullets.

We soon found out that the open windows were great when the train was moving, but not so good when we were sitting at one of many small town stations where the exhaust fumes were sucked right in. After we finished our beer and a couple snacks, I decided to explore the 1st class cars a little to see if there were any empty compartments. I found that there was an ENTIRE 1ST CLASS CAR EMPTY! That’s at least 8 cabins with 6 seats each with power outlets and individually controlled air conditioning. They were all empty while those suckers were roasting back in 2nd class. Geeze. I asked one of the conductors if it was okay if we moved up, and even though I didn’t understand what he said, I assumed he said yes.

The rest of our journey was definitely the best train ride I have ever taken. It certainly helped that we had a cabin to ourselves, but the scenery was top notch and Nik had just downloaded a couple new albums that fit the occasion perfectly.

We pulled into the train station after dark and our month in Croatia had officially begun. Zagreb was our introduction to the former Yugoslavia, and we only gave her 36 hours to make a first impression. Luckily, she was up to the task and we had a wonderful day.

We strolled under the iconic red umbrellas of the Dolac Market, walked through the cafes and bars in Upper Town near the Cathedral, climbed the hill to St Marks, descended through one of many valley parks lined with old and new homes, had a fantastic lunch on one of many pedestrian streets, and took the tram to the Miragoj Cemetery. By that point, Nik was exhausted, so I left him in the room and continued to explore the shopping area in search for the perfect sandals. After a successful purchase, I picked up take-out sushi for dinner in our room at the Palace Hotel.

It was an intense day, but Zagreb gave us the best first impression of Croatia we could have asked for.

The red umbrellas Croatia is known for

The red umbrellas Croatia is known for

Plants for sale

Plants for sale

Monochromatic

Monochromatic

A peaceful sculpture

A peaceful sculpture

Mirogoj Cemetery

Mirogoj Cemetery

Nik’s Blog: Two Nights in Zagreb and the Worlds’ Your Oyster

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